Cook Islands: the Hidden Gem of the South Pacific

Helen Brahms | Cruise Planners | Have2Cruise | Have2Travel | John Gunning | Cook Islands | Te Vaka | Air New Zealand Vacations

John Gunning on the Te Vaka

To hear the audio of this transcript Click HERE

HELEN: Kia ora, and welcome to the Have2Travel show. I am your host, Helen Brahms from Cruise Planners, and today I am super, duper excited. Mind you, I’m always excited when I bring guests on, because when I bring guests on, I get super excited about the fact that you’re going to learn about fantastic experiences and fantastic destinations. And today I have as my guest, John Gunning, from Air New Zealand Vacation.

And you’re probably thinking the show—okay, in New Zealand, you’re probably thinking “New Zealand again?” Not this time. We’re going to go to a completely different destination. Today I’ve got John on here, and we’re going to be talking about the Cook Islands.

And when you hear about the Cook Islands and all the amazing things that they’re going to offer you there, the experiences you can have, you’re going to be wanting to go there. And we’re going to give you that chance. But first of all, John, welcome to the show and thank you so much for taking time out of your day to come on the show and talk to us about the Cook Islands today.

JOHN:  No problem at all, Helen. I’d like to be able to talk about something that you and I are both passionate about, the South Pacific, and obviously this little hidden gem I guess, that a lot of people don’t know about, because it doesn’t get as much publicity as a lot of the other islands. But I can tell you what, once you go there, you’ll definitely want to come back, as you and I will attest to personally.

HELEN: Oh I don’t know if I want to come back from there.


JOHN: I’m saying you’ll want to come back to the Cook Islands, I should say.

HELEN: Absolutely. And just to give our listeners just a heads up, yes you do detect that John has an accent. You’ve got my Kiwi accent and John is actually from across the Tasman in Australia. But that’s okay. We won’t hold that against him. It’s our friendly rivalry that we have. But he is a good mate, and last year I was fortunate enough to go with John and eight other people on a trip to the Cook Islands, and I will tell you, this place blew my mind away.

I mean I’ve always known New Zealand as being absolutely gorgeous, and stunning, and beautiful, and having a lot of stuff to offer people, but when we stepped foot on the Cook Islands, it was another world. It was just breathtakingly beautiful. And coming from a Kiwi, that’s really—that’s a very high standard when you think of what New Zealand has to offer and then you go somewhere like the Cook Islands.

JOHN: It’s so true, so true.

HELEN: I know it. But what I couldn’t get over is when we were there—I mean you always—when you talked about going to Cook Islands, I started researching like I normally do. I’m going to a new destination; let’s start doing some research on it.

And seeing these beautiful pictures online and in books and everything else. And you get there, and the reality of it is just so much more of what is in the photograph. It was unbelievably crystal-clear blue water like you could never imagine unless you’ve experienced it. And oh, I mean what did you think about it, John? All that crystal blue water.

JOHN: It was absolutely amazing. You can understand why countries, people from all around the world go to it. Magazine covers it. Calendars. There are various shows have been shot throughout the Cook Islands, just because of that Hollywood setting without any props, so to speak. It’s just natural beauty. You know what I mean? Anywhere throughout the whole of the Cook Islands, be it the North or the South island.

HELEN: Absolutely true. And you bring up magazine covers. Sports Illustrated films—does all their photo shoots there for the swimsuit edition.

JOHN: Correct.

HELEN: So when people see those—so if you look beyond the beautiful women and look behind them at the scene that they’re in, that’s the Cook Islands.

JOHN: It’s so true. A lot of my friends said “What was the best thing about the Cook Islands?” And to me, it’s just the natural setting. They haven’t had to airbrush it or do anything. It’s just a great little place to go and relax and chill out, and take it easy, as we’ll discuss today.

HELEN: And one of the things that I found in the Cook Islands, people have heard me talk about this. When you go to New Zealand, how time slows down compared to when you’re in the United States. Everything in the United States needs to be fast. Everybody wants everything done now. When you go to New Zealand, it’s a very much more relaxed, easygoing pace. But when you go to the Cook Islands, time literally stands still. You lose track of time down there. That’s something that got me was I mean yeah, you really do. You lose track of time.

Helen Brahms | Cruise Planners | Have2Cruise | Have2Travel | John Gunning | Cook Islands | Te Vaka | Air New Zealand Vacations | Who CaresJOHN: Yeah, I remember. Do you remember that clock we saw when we were down there, Helen, behind one of the hotel reception desks? And it had the numbers around the outside of it. The numbers went 12, 8, 4, 2, 1. And in the middle there was a big rooster, and it said “Who cares?” And I think that sums up the—

HELEN: Exactly. It really is. And I remember the day that we went on the Te Vaka and we’ll talk about the Te Vaka shortly, but the guy on the Te Vaka turned around to us. We’ve got a group of 10 travel agents there. He goes “Oh, when did you guys arrive?” And we’re all like looking at each other, and we’re going “Was it yesterday? Was it the day before?”

We literally had no clue and we had to stop and think “When did we arrive in the Cook Islands?” And it was actually early the morning before that we had arrived, yet we had already slowed down that much in experiencing that real laid-back culture of the time standing still. And really, like you said, who cares what time it is? We were so out of it at that point, yet somehow—and this is the thing that amazed me, we had lost track of time, yet somehow we stayed on time for all of our appointments and everything we had to do. That just floored me.

JOHN: It did. And I guess the good thing about the Cook Islands, especially the main island of Rarotonga, even if we did get lost, we were never too far from anyone, when it’s only 20 miles around the whole island. No issue at all. But so much to do as well in the round the major islands of Aitutaki and Rarotonga.

HELEN: Yeah, one thing that I liked when we were down there is that a lot of the resorts—and we did visit a lot of resorts while we were there, but a lot of them, their thing was “This is where you sleep and you eat. The island is your resort.” And a lot of them had that philosophy, which I thought was amazing. When you asked them what can we go and see and do, I thought there’s this little island in the South Pacific. So it’s going to be a bit of this and a bit of that. But there was this huge, long list they could come up with. It was unbelievable.

JOHN: Yeah. Once you take away those probably four or five big resorts, the rest of the little places you can stay at only probably have 5-10 rooms at the maximum. So you get that real personal feel as well, with everybody you stay. You get to meet the owners. You get to meet the proprietors. It’s just very relaxing, easy-going.

HELEN: Absolutely. And the fun cracks me up. I’ve always heard about the buses on Rarotonga. There’s only two. One says “Clockwise” and one says “Anti-clockwise.” And I mean that just cracked me up to start with. But it wasn’t until we actually saw them that it actually hit me that they really do have two busses. And I remember you running to a bus stop when one of them pulled into a bus stop close to us, running there and asking the driver to wait while you went and stood in front and took a photograph of it.

JOHN: Well that’s what the people are all there. And the funny thing is, I just took a group down there recently, in the last probably couple of weeks. And they said “How do we stop the bus? Where’s the bus stop?” I said “There is no bus stop. All you do is put your hand out, and as long as he’s not going to run over anyone, he’ll stop and pick you up.” So the bus system’s great. You realistically can be anywhere on the island and you can get to another point. Very simple.

HELEN: And if you get on the wrong one, it doesn’t matter, because very soon you’ll be back to where you need to be.

JOHN: Exactly.

HELEN: You can take the long way around.

JOHN: And when it’s 20 miles, it’s not that long fortunately. So no worries. I’m sure many have made that idyllic mistake before.

HELEN: [Laughter] It’s just—it was just amazing. And one of the things that we didn’t get to do this trip, which I would have like to have done was the Eco cycling tour. I know that we had a tight timetable and everything else, so we couldn’t fit it in there.

But they have this cycling tour, where it’s 3-5 hours, and it’s mainly flat, but they do have some more advanced ones for those that want to really cycle. And they take you on this tour around the Cook Islands. Fortunately, when we were there I was kind of thankful we didn’t get to do it, because it rained while we were there.

JOHN: A little bit inclement those days.

HELEN: Yeah. Except for the day that we went over to Aitutaki, and we’ll talk about Aitutaki soon.

JOHN: Yeah, it’s great memories, great memories for sure.

HELEN: Oh absolutely. So what are some of the highlights on Rarotonga? When people go there, what are some—oh, now I do have to ask you. One thing we need to bring up is about getting their driver’s license in the Cook Islands. How difficult of a process is that, John?

JOHN: To get your license is very, very simple. You can literally just go into the police station and they can issue that in under 15 minutes. Now I’ll give you a little bit of a heads up though. If you are going to go down, you can also get your bike license. They’ll let anyone get their bike license, but they’ve changed the rules slightly, just in the last month, to get your moped license.

You have to go to the police station there and do the test before hiring the bike. In the past, you were able to get it and ride it there. They now make you go and get the license within 24 hours. So it’s slightly changed. Still very simple, but just to give people a bit of a heads up if they’ve got an old guidebook or they’ve read something online that’s outside of the last six months.

So just be aware of that. You will need to go get your license in the first 24 hours of getting your motorbike rental. But there are a number of different great options on Rarotonga. I was, as I mentioned Helen, I was down there recently. A number of different options, such as if you’re a person that really wants to experience Rarotonga and learn about the history, I suggest doing a walk with a gentleman by the name of Pa.

He does a number of different discovery walks there. And they can be set up just depending on your ability and how far you want to go into the island. He can do a very simple walk where he just really talks about the nature and about the island. But you could also then do the more extensive walk, which actually cuts through—right through the heart of Rarotonga.

And it goes from the capitol of Avarua all the way across to the other side of the island, and you actually go past one of the most iconic symbols of the Cook Islands, being what we commonly refer to as the Needle, or in the Cook Islands, they refer to it as Te Rua Manga. That’s around about 413 meters, which is metric. So we’re looking at around about 1,300 feet. So in the States that’s not huge, but to the Cook Islands, that’s rather—

HELEN: That’s massive.

JOHN: Yeah. And it stands out. You can definitely see it as you’re walking around the island. So the trek takes about 3-4 hours. So it’s a great way to engage with a living legend. Pa sometimes does a walk, but I’ve noticed over the last couple of years he’s toned it down a little bit. Now he gets his nephews and that to do it for the longer walk as well. So that’s a nice introduction. On the walk, you’ll go past Wigmore’s Waterfall. That’s also—

HELEN: How beautiful.

JOHN: —very accessible as well if you just want to hire a car, or even if you just hire your own push bike or grab your own moped, you can head out there. It’s only about, literally about five miles off the main road. So it’s very easy to access. Something that’s relatively new to the Cook Islands, they do have quad biking, and then they also had some dune buggies down there as well.

HELEN: Oh really?

JOHN: Yeah. They’re relatively new, both of these. With the quad bikes, you’re looking at that you’re going to go between 15 and 20 different stream systems. You pilot the bike yourself. Go through about 2 ½ hours for each ride, so to speak, and they do it each day, Monday through to Saturday. The Cook Islands, Sunday’s a rest day. Not much happens on Sunday.

You go to church. You relax, spend time with your family. But you can do the quad bikes two times a day from 10:30 and 1:30. And as I said, you go up to about 20 streams. The other alternative is you can actually get a dune buggy. And they don’t go into the streams as much, but they actually go around the roads of the Cook Islands. They’ll go a little bit off beat, but it’s really good for families.

Because what happens is anyone over the age of four, they can go on these dune buggies, the dune buggies with their parents. So the kids love it. The smiles on their faces as they go cruising around, sitting up there with Mum or Dad, and just really enjoying being out in the open air, so to speak, and not in a traditional car either. So there being two really popular add-ons to the Cook Islands, and activities that you and I may not have seen when we were down there in the past 12 months or so.

The other two that sort of jump out to me, if I’m on Rarotonga, in regards to sort of activities, so to speak, you can do a lot of fishing. You could go out with a company called Marlin Queen. They’re one of the best ones, off Rarotonga. And you can go out and you can go fishing for marlin, or you can go out looking for tuna, just any sort of those big fish that you may be looking for, and have that really, truly experienced fisherman with you to show you how to catch some of these big fish out in the open waters.

Because once you get outside of the bay, you’re literally out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. So those guys can take you out there – Marlin Queen. And probably a little bit of a favorite and good for the whole family is looking at the Coco Lagoon cruises, which runs out of the area known as Murray Beach, which is one of the most popular areas, where I just stayed recently.

It’s got one of the most beautiful lagoons, and on that they do a day tour. It goes for about 3 ½ to 4 hours. You jump on board a beautiful glass-bottomed boat in the morning, so you can see all the tropical fish. The guide gives a you a little bit of an overview, do a little bit of snorkeling, barbecue fish for lunch. There’s also some coconut tree climbing, where they show you how to get the coconuts down.

And they also have a little bit of an interactions with the guests and play a few games throughout the day. So that’s a great alternative for those who aren’t fortunate enough to get across to Aitutaki and I believe see the most beautiful lagoon in the world. But this mirror lagoon, I’ll tell you what, is pretty close to it.

HELEN: Wow. Because I remember the Aitutaki, and that was just unbelievable. And it’s a very short flight from Rarotonga. It’s only like 40 minutes, 40-45 minutes, in a prop plane, and you’ve got two seats on each side of the plane, and you fly over there, you get off at their little airport there. We got picked up and we got taken to the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort, where we got on a boat to go across the little inlet there to get to the resort.

I remember having—their breakfast there was just amazing. The new organic menu that they had there, where nothing was out of cans. Everything was freshly prepared that day unless it was something that needed to be prepared the day before in order for you to eat it the next day. But I remember their beautiful menu, and then getting on the Te Vaka.

And the Te Vaka, for those that don’t know, is a Polynesian Catamaran. And this thing was amazing. It had a big covered area with tables underneath, where we got to sit, and we were all set up at our own table and everything, but it had places front and back where you could go sunbathing. And the crew just interacted with you so well and entertained you. I think my funniest thing was watching the captain as he’s there and he’s steering the Te Vaka. And he’d just be sitting there beating away on the—what was it? The hand drums that he had there.

JOHN: Yeah, those little drums he had?

HELEN: Yeah. Those little hand drums. He was beating away on that, and every now and again, he’d have to correct us.

JOHN: Yep. Bongos.

HELEN: Thank you. On the bongos. And he was banging away on those, and every now and again, he’d straighten up the steering wheel and go back to—without losing a beat. [Laughter]

JOHN: Yeah, like you said, it’s only 45 minutes and then you’re in paradise. And they’re so relaxed the way they do the trip, but they’re so professional. And I think that’s what the Cook Islands is all about. You feel relaxed, and you feel like “Oh.” Not that they don’t care, but it just runs so smoothly, and everybody has that “Oh, she’ll be alright” sort of attitude, and it is.

Everything just falls into place and it’s well organized. It’s just yeah, absolutely amazing place to spend a bit of quality time. Do remember how to fold all those sarongs? Remember how they showed us last year, Helen? Do you remember that?

HELEN: Oh, that was hilarious. I actually videotaped the whole thing. In fact, I’ve got to put the video up sometime on my YouTube channel. But the sarongs, they actually had the guy there—I can’t think of his name.

JOHN: I can’t either.

HELEN: He had long, curly hair.

JOHN: Yeah, he had the long, curly hair. The guy I just had recently was a guy called Ollie, and he said the same guy that you and I had, with the long, curly hair, they rotate between each other.

HELEN: Oh, okay.

JOHN: So yeah, so I’ve been fortunate and had both of the guys now. And they’re as good as each other, to be honest. You can’t go wrong. They’re both very talented gentlemen.

HELEN: But the stories behind some of the sarong ties and the different names that they had for them was absolutely hilarious. And you had some—you had some young girl come up there, who I think they were doing their honeymoon there as a couple.

So I think the wife goes up there and he does these beautiful sarong ties. And you could tell he was trying to be very careful around certain parts of her body, which made it hilarious about how he handled that. And then he gets a guy to come up there and shows you some sarong ties for the men. That was—I’m surprised I managed to hold the camera steady. [Laughter]

JOHN: True. And the thing is, these guys are all bigger guys. You know what I mean? They’re very muscular, large guys, but they’re just Polynesian style of men. So not that they’re intimidating, but they had that muscular frame, which for small—

HELEN: And to handle something so delicate, doing knots and ties on the sarongs, and how they do the folds and all that was actually quite—these big muscular men and how they do folds on these sarongs was hilarious. [Laughter]

JOHN: No, it was great.

HELEN: But the stories they would tell you too. Like one of the islands that we went to is called One Foot Island, and we took our passports there. They stamped—we got our passports stamped, and actually it was put “One Foot Island” on there. It’s one of my most treasured stamps in my passport is that One Foot Island one. And then they’re telling us the story about how One Foot Island got their name.

They’re telling us stories about different places around the lagoon, stories of when “Survivor: Cook Islands” was there, because some of the islands in the lagoon, they used as the—they used one for the tribal meetings, then each tribe was on a different island. And then they had the different islands that they used for the challenges and things. So that was kind of cool to be able to basically walk through where those people had been, and the habitat their home was for the time that they were on the island. That was kind of cool too. Some of those stores.

JOHN: And I was talking about that just recently, and they were saying that when they got kicked off, they’re allowed to stay anywhere on this other island there, and they’d get massages each day and whatever food they wanted flown in. So realistically, some of them could have been staying anywhere from 5-10 weeks being waited on hand and foot. So—

HELEN: Wow, just because they weren’t allowed to go back home at the time, because that would give the game away.

JOHN: Yep that was the story. So you may—

HELEN: And given some of the beautiful beaches that they used for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition, those beaches are gorgeous beaches. I mean beautiful, white sand with crystal blue clear waters was just amazing. Just you really were standing in a post card.

JOHN: It’s like flour in your feet really. You put your feet down, it just literally goes all the way through your toes, and all of a sudden you can just feel your feet sinking, and then you get a bit of water splashing up on you. It’s just the idyllic setting.

HELEN: And the water was—even when we went—because there were places where they actually stopped and we were allowed to go into the water and go swimming and that kind of stuff, because we were there for a while. They said “You can go swimming if you want to.” They actually had snorkeling stuff on board the ship—on board the Te Vaka so that we could go snorkeling.

And I have never been snorkeling in my life. So I had one of the crew members standing on the deck of the Te Vaka there giving me instructions in the water. Now I am somebody who has overcome a huge fear of water, and to have a tube coming out of my mouth that I had to use for breathing, and to sink down into the water to use the tube for breathing, that just constricted my chest.

I tried it. I couldn’t do it. But I was happy just to stay in the water where I could just walk around. Because the water was just—it wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t hot. It was just this beautiful, perfect temperature for swimming in. It was amazing. But I know that you went snorkeling. Tell us some of the things that you got to see while you were snorkeling.

JOHN: The snorkeling was great. Just the visibility, for those who have been maybe to other places, maybe Hawaii or the Caribbean and that, sometimes you jump in the water and you don’t know how—your depth or your visibility. But in the Cook Islands, and especially around Aitutaki Lagoon, you’ve realistically got about 40-45 feet of visibility.

So it is truly amazing what you can see down there. I mean you can see it by—you were saying Helen, just standing and looking down. You can see the fish and that swimming around below your feet. But we were lucky enough, we saw some turtles. We saw some sea clams. We also saw sea cucumbers. I mean I kid you not. Hundreds and hundreds of tropical fish that just go in and around the surface.

And the great thing about the lagoon is that you can literally free-dive down to the bottom of it because it wouldn’t be any more than 60 feet. And that’s at its absolute deepest, deepest point I’m talking. So it was just great to be out in it. Put the flippers on, as we call them, and then put the mask on, and away you go. So we went in pairs, and we were able to get out there and experience a lot.

Not when we were snorkeling, but we did see the turtles when we were actually up on the Vaka and just cruising around the lagoon, which it’s something you always hope to see, and people say “Oh, you may see it.” But we were fortunate enough to see the turtles swimming out on sort of the bales of the Vaka.

HELEN: Excellent. Yeah, that was—that really was an amazing day. And I don’t even know how long we were out there on the Te Vaka for.

JOHN: I’ll be like you, Helen. I know we left at about 6:30-7:00 in the morning. We got back about 6:00 that afternoon. That included the flight. So I guess it’s about six or so hours out on probably the most majestic lagoon anywhere in the world.

HELEN: But who cares? I mean we were just out there having the great day. We could not have—I mean when we arrived from Rarotonga the day before, it was raining. And I am somebody who loves the rain, so it didn’t bother me at all. But it wasn’t cold rain. It was your tropical rain. So it had that warmth in the air. And it was a bit of humidity there, but by the time the afternoon came, it had cleared up.

When we went to have dinner that evening, it was—the skies were clear. We got the most amazing sunsets while we were on the Cook Islands. Beautiful sunsets. And then the next day, we woke up and yes, it was a little dark when we first got up, but we had a flight to catch. And by the time we got over to Aitutaki and we got out there on the lagoon, it was just blue skies, crystal-clear blue water, beautiful temperatures. You could not have asked for a more perfect weather, or a more perfect day to be out on that lagoon. It was just phenomenal.

JOHN: Yeah. And there’s a lot of nice options to stay over there as well, over at Aitutaki. I mean we were lucky. We stayed at Maina Beach, and we were lucky enough to check out two other resorts and have dinner, and also breakfast, as you mentioned earlier, at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort and Spa.

So something that opens up for everyone, be it a honeymooner, or a group, or a family. If you do want to get a little bit more off the beaten track than Rarotonga, then Aitutaki’s a great little place, be it for two or three days or longer if you really want to just disassociate yourself from modern technology, so to speak.


JOHN: And it’s just very, very relaxing.

HELEN: My cellphone wasn’t working too well on the island, so I wasn’t too worried about that one. I said “I’ve only got three nights here, and then I’m in New Zealand, then I’ll be fine. It’s not a problem.”

JOHN: Yeah. That’s so true.

HELEN: But what I liked about some of the resorts that we saw, I was surprised—what surprised me the most about, whether we were on Rarotonga or Aitutaki, were the number of resorts that we visited, was one, the size of them, and two, how most of them were adults only. And we’re talking 18 years and up. The one we saw was 16 years and up.

And they only have—the first one that we went to, the Sea Change Village, had three villas at the back of their little resort area, and that was the only place that the teenagers were allowed were in those villas there. All the other villas were for adults only and were designed for couples. And that really amazed me, because it’s a great honeymoon spot, getaway for an anniversary, it’s a celebration, just where you want a nice, romantic setting.

But what amazed me is that it’s this beautiful, tropical island, but how much like Hawaii and Tahiti the Cook Islands were. But without the tourists. And that’s something I loved about it was that you got away from all that touristy stuff that goes on, all the touristy traps and everything else. It’s not there on the Cook Islands. And you can have a phenomenal vacation where you completely unplug, get away from the technology and stuff and just have the ultimate vacation with complete relaxation and not having a care in the world while you’re there.

JOHN: Yeah. And that’s the thing with the Cooks. You just get to become how we were. And a lot of people have said to me, “It’s like Hawaii was 30 years ago.” The first time I went to Hawaii is about 15 years ago, but people say if you even go back a little bit before that, that’s how the Cook Islands has that feel to it now. And it’s lucky, it’s actually on the same time zone as Hawaii, so you don’t cross over the international date line. There are direct flights as well out of Los Angeles. So to the Cook Islands it’s another 10 hours—

HELEN: There are. They leave at 11:59 PM on Sunday.

JOHN: You remembered. You’ve done well, extremely well. I’m impressed.

HELEN: [Laughter] I remember, 11:59 PM. I was like “Who is the flight that leaves at 11:59? Why don’t they just make it midnight?”

JOHN: [Laughter] Yeah. And that was—we stayed close to the airport. We stayed at the Edgewater, on our boat.

HELEN: We did, yes.

JOHN: It doesn’t really matter where you stay in Rarotonga, you’re only 30 minutes from the airport.

HELEN: And that was the biggest resort in the whole of the Cook Islands.

JOHN: Mm-hmm. Correct.

HELEN: Was it 250 rooms if I remember correctly? It was the largest resort. Everything else was mainly around the 10-20 villas most of them had, although there were some resorts that had just a few more than that. But they weren’t as big as the Edgewater one. And that was another surprise too, was everybody keeps everything small and intimate.

JOHN: Yeah.

JOHN:  I loved how they encouraged us to get out of the resort. You know what I mean? “Go to the other resorts and have dinner.” “Go next door and try their cultural show.” That’s what the Cook Islands is all about.

HELEN: Yeah, and it’s just—it doesn’t matter if you’re going to their competition down the road, because it’s one island. “We are the place where you sleep. You can have breakfast here. The rest of the island is your resort. Go explore. Go have adventures.” And they really are like that, and they encourage you. Although when I was at the Pacific—

I will say when we were at the Pacific Resort, that one there had more of the resort feel that a lot of Americans would be used to, where you have the type rooms that they want, and the general resort where they have the activities there at the resort. They had the little Kids Club there as well. Great place for families. They were on the lagoon. They had the water sports.

You had the paddle boards and the kayaks. So that to me felt more of the typical American expectations for a resort. The other ones completely removed you from that and was a very different experience. Some places you’d get your own villa. Some places, in fact most of the places that we had, they had individual villas where you were in an individual building.

And some of them had kitchenettes in them. Some of them didn’t. Some of them had these beautiful, deep porches or verandas on the front there, completely covered with a fan outside there. There was just—I mean it was great. And some of them had the little authentic thatched roofs on them. But most of—but all of them were basically had beach access, were on the beach or had beach access.

JOHN: Yeah, the—

HELEN: The virtue of them didn’t.

JOHN: Yeah, even the ones that didn’t were on the other side of the road. And you’re literally only—

HELEN: You walk across the road and go down that path and you’re at the beach.

JOHN: Yeah, it was like you can’t—

HELEN: Here’s you a paddle board.

JOHN: And it has those great little outlets where you can have maybe a drink in the afternoon, be it a beer or a glass of wine, or a soft drink, at a number of different places. One that really stands out to you and I, I guess, and I remember is that Shipwreck Bar and those beautiful, lovely ladies.

HELEN: Oh, those two ladies were something else, I tell you. These—I don’t know what roles they have at this resort, but they were the most friendliest, happiest people. Very welcoming, very accommodating, just wanted you to stay, and you just wanted to stay with them because they were contagious as far as their personalities go.

You just wanted to hang out with these women. They were just like—you remember that picture with the motorcycles? It was a motor scooter going down the street, and there’s the two ladies with the wreaths around their heads, and just the biggest laughs on their faces?

JOHN: Yes.

HELEN: You remember that picture?

JOHN: Yep. The one that they use a lot.

HELEN: That’s who those two ladies remind me of. You just want to be there with them.

JOHN: Yeah.

HELEN: Having that fun, absorbing their energy that they have, and just being part of the party. I mean these two girls would have a party by themselves and they’d be happy. But they attract people to them, and they made the most potent-sounding cocktails.

JOHN: [Laughter] It looked fruity, but it had a little bit of a kick to it, I can tell you.

HELEN: Yeah, and they wanted to make me one, and I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t drink.” And they said “Oh, we can make it without the alcohol. That’s not a problem.”

JOHN: [Laughter]

HELEN: It’s like they don’t want you to miss out. Even though you don’t drink, they don’t want you to miss out on the fun of the experience of the islands. Yeah. But that Shipwreck Bar was something else. [Laughter]

JOHN: And the food is great. That’s what I always tell people, people who haven’t experienced it. The food, especially the seafood, because it’s obviously an island.

HELEN: Fresh.

JOHN: Exactly.

HELEN: Fresh, fresh seafood.

JOHN: Yep. And everyone down there knows how to cook. Someone in the family’s a great cook. So you have all the cuisines from around the world. Your typical American, European, great Asian fusion and then obviously fresh seafood to die for, because everywhere has an outlet or an opportunity to try something.

It is a little bit different, and there’s always those open markets. We went to a lot of markets just recently when we were down there. The night markets where you can try different—it’s like a curry one night, or fresh fish and chips. It’s just really just great to get out and experience it with the locals.

HELEN: I still remember that lunch that we had on board the Te Vaka.

JOHN: Mm-hmm.

HELEN: That was amazing. You go out there and these all these wooden bowls on their buffet. They’re spread out, and they had these tiny, miniature looking grapes. We’re talking tiny little grapes that were not very big at all. They kind of looked like the size of lead shot I guess. But there were these tiny little bunches of what looked like grapes. And I asked them “What are these?”

And they go “Oh, they’re sea grapes.” I was like “Oh, well I’m trying some of them.” And you bit into them and it’s almost like biting into little tiny balls of saltwater. But they were really delicious. I actually went back and got some more of those, because they were just—but there was a lot of food there that I had never had before, but I was like “As long as it’s not onions, I’m in.” [Laughter]

JOHN: That’s right. We were lucky. We were down there on a Saturday just recently, and Saturday’s the day where all the markets are held there. And everybody from everywhere on the island comes to the Saturday markets. And I would argue it is the best place in the world to get a pearl. Because there’s only two places on the Cook Islands where they harvest them, but you can go and pick out a very, very nice pearl that would be—this is realistically, about 30 to 40 percent cheaper than you’d find anywhere in the United States at these markets.


JOHN: My wife picked one up. I can tell you, we did a lot of wheeling—not wheeling and dealing, but we spoke to a lot of people to make sure we got the deal. And the good thing about the Cook Islands is, since because it’s so small you don’t feel like anyone’s going to try and take advantage of you because everybody knows each other.

HELEN: Oh, yeah.

JOHN: It just won’t work in the Cook Islands. It’s very much a family orientated place.

HELEN: That’s one thing that I noticed. And it’s that family—and I guess that’s why I love it so much, because coming from New Zealand, and you’ll appreciate this coming from Australia, family’s everything.

JOHN: Yep.

HELEN: We’re all big on family, and we’re all big on having that connection time, and that is very much what the attitude of the Cook Islands is. They want you to have a good time, and when they welcome you, they really do welcome you as part of their family, not as a—not as just another tourist.

They actually embrace—they actually embrace you and your culture, and they welcome you to theirs, and they have great pleasure in introducing you to their culture. And they are more than willing to help you if you have a question. And some of the people, I mean we went—when we went down shopping the last day before we got onto the planes, or whatever day that was when we went down to the central shopping area, when you went and stopped the bus and got your driver’s license on the Cook Islands.

Whatever day that was. I remember we—there was this really great jewelry shop down, and one of the girls and I went in and were moseying around, saying yeah, we were not there to buy anything. They knew we weren’t going to buy anything, and that we were just browsing. But we got talking with them, and they took time out of their day, knowing that we weren’t going to buy anything, just to have a conversation.

And that to me is like—I love when you can walk into a store and people, they know you’re not there to buy, but they take the time to talk with you anyway. And you learn a lot about people and their culture from those types of people and those types of stores where they will take the time out of their day just to have a conversation with you.

JOHN: Yeah, and they ask your name and they remember it. I can attest to this, because when I went down there, the guy who picked us up from the airport actually picked me up this year.

HELEN: Oh cool.

JOHN: I don’t know if he got it off a list, but he looked at me in the eye, and he goes “John, how are you? It’s been about a year, hasn’t it?” I was like he’s either got a great memory—but they do. They generally want to know who you are, and they generally they’re just really good people. That’s the best way to look at it. They’re just really good, relaxed people who enjoy the good things in life.

HELEN: And nothing is too much trouble.

JOHN: No. They definitely, on Cook Island, say “Yep, no problem. We’ll get that done for you. What do you need?”

HELEN: Yeah. I remember sitting down that last night we were on the Cook Islands, where we had the dinner that was put on by the Edgewater Resort, where we were staying. They took us on this great tour of the property, and I didn’t realize how large their property was. Because we’d only seen a very small portion of it, because we were close to the reception area. But we had the general manager sitting down with us. We had the—oh, the other guy.

JOHN: The marketing director was there as well.

HELEN: The marketing director. And we had somebody else high up. They came and sat down with us and just had great conversations with us. And then it turned out that I’m sitting there with the general manager. He finds out I’m from New Zealand. We’re talking backwards and forwards, and we knew the same people.

JOHN: [Laughter] Yep. And everybody has a relationship where they can have a bit of a laugh, as you guys definitely did as I can remember.

HELEN: Oh yeah.


HELEN:  But I’m trying to remember. There was somebody there I met when we were on the Cook Islands, and it was probably the general manager, who went to the same school as my grandfather did, although in a completely different era. But he knew some of the same people. He knew where my grandfather’s street was, where my grandfather used to live on in New Zealand.

And then we kept talking, and he had relatives in New Plymouth, where my parents spent eight years living in New Plymouth. I had spent eight years living in New Plymouth. They were there a little longer, or close to it. And we’re talking and going backwards and forwards and all of that, and then I got on the—when we got to New Zealand, I’m busy texting backwards and forwards with my parents going “Hey, do you remember so and so from New Plymouth?”

And they’re like “Yeah, we know them, blah-blah-blah.” And I’m like “Oh my God. I met this general manager at the Edgewater Resort in Rarotonga, and he’s their uncle, or cousin or something.” He was somehow related to them. So it was just—and by that stage, we were already—I mean everybody becomes friends immediately. [Laughter]

JOHN: How can you not? Can you really down there?

HELEN: I know. You can’t, because it’s like these people are so infectious in a good way.

JOHN: Yes, that’s a good way to sum it up. Exactly.

HELEN: Mm-hmm. You just want to party with them. So now, now I’m going to go a little bit—we’re going to get away from the experiences just a little bit, and we’re going to talk about how the best way is to get to Rarotonga, and what you can do within the Cook Islands on your itinerary. I just had a client who left at the beginning of the month, who left Los Angeles, flew down to Rarotonga for a few nights there before going on to New Zealand.

And I have another client in New Zealand who’s about to leave New Zealand, go to the Cook Islands for about a week, and then she’s going to fly home to the US. So those are two different ways that you can look at attaching the Cook Islands onto your journey down to either New Zealand or Australia, or just going down to the Cook Islands for a couple of weeks via the Cook Islands itself. So some of the other things that we can—

JOHN: It’s often as a combine, as you mentioned. Beautiful option.

HELEN: Yeah. And my understanding is, and I know John’s going to correct me if I get this incorrect, is that if you are going from the US to New Zealand, and you stop off at the Cook Islands on the way, the airfare is the same either way.

JOHN: Correct. I’ll just have to double-check, but that’s normally the rule of thumb, Helen, with that. I mean we won’t get too deep into it, but that basically runs true all the way through. Just with a couple of little blackouts, but yeah, no problems at all.

And we actually, with us at Air New Zealand Vacations, we encourage people to check out as much of the South Pacific as possible. Obviously stop over in the Cook Islands, if they are going to Australia or New Zealand, just gives them a taste of it. Or if you can spend a little bit longer there, you’ll definitely be wanting for more regardless of how much time you spend there.

HELEN: Oh, I can’t wait to go back. [Laughter]

JOHN: Well I was just there, and someone says to me “How hot is it there?” And I said “Well, it’s about between 75 and 80 realistically all year round.”

HELEN: Yep. And when we were there, we were there at the beginning of June last year, and for me, I found it a little too humid for me at that time of the year. But then it’s sort of like there’s times where it’s a little drier than others, and we had the rain that was in the air. But I am—I’m not one that likes humidity a lot, so I tend to notice it. For other people, it was very comfortable and they were fine. So it depends if you’re sensitive to the humidity or not, but when we were there at the time of year that we were there, it was a little humid.

JOHN: Mm-hmm.

HELEN: It was bordering on the little too much for me, but otherwise it was okay.


JOHN: We just have to get you actually set up for Aitutaki Lagoon.

HELEN: Oh, that Aitutaki Lagoon, gosh, that one’s just going to live with me forever. That was like the best experience ever. Oh, and I have to mention too, one of the things that we got to see when we were at the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort was we got to see their honeymoon suite. And their honeymoon suite was out of this world. It had like an 8-foot-high fence all the way around it.

You had your own private garden, your own private swimming pool, private Jacuzzi. You had a daybed in there. You had the bedroom area. You had the Living room area. You had an indoor dining area and outdoor dining area, an indoor kitchen, outdoor showers. Oh, and that was one thing I loved about the Cook Islands. A lot of the places had outdoor showers, and that was just beautiful.

But this honeymoon resort on the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort was just this private oasis in the middle of a resort that you could just basically lock yourself away and enjoy your honeymoon, your anniversary, whatever celebration you’re doing, and just have a private time with you and your spouse, or your partner, or whoever. And that one just blew my mind, that one, because that was just such a private oasis in the middle of a phenomenal resort anyway. So that one I remember too.

JOHN: Yeah, with a lot of the resorts, the great thing about them is they don’t have added extras, as like a cost occurred to them. So they have the kayaks, or their snorkeling gear. It’s all included. You just go and get it out of a big bin, or you go and get it out of the store. Or you remember when we were at the Pacific Resort? They let us go and pick up paddle boards there. They let us get snorkeling equipment. It was no cost incurred.

HELEN: True.

JOHN: It’s all inclusive in regards to the activities, but they do encourage you to get out as well. So it’s nice you’re not always dipping into your pockets when you’re down there. And if you do have kids, or you’re traveling with younger adults, you don’t feel like you have to give them money to let them have a good day. They can literally just go and pick up a paddle board, or a canoe, or a kayak, and go out and paddle around the lagoon. So I think that’s a great little feature. Rarotonga as a whole, and any of the resorts as well.

HELEN: Absolutely. And one of the resorts, I’m trying to think which one it is. I know it had Te Vaka in it.

JOHN: Tumana?

HELEN: The Te VakaroaVillas.

JOHN: Oh, okay.

HELEN: This has to be one of my favorite places, simply because of the size of it. They had six villas in this—or six units on their villas, and that was it. And they’re in one building. You’ve got three one-bedrooms down below, three two-bedrooms upstairs above those. They all come out onto the same common area where there’s a swimming pool there.

There were the chaise lounges out there. There were some beanbags out there. And they had an infinity pool that looked out on the beautiful beach area. But the thing I liked about it is that the whole resort, it’s adults only, 18 years and up, and the whole resort holds only 18 people. So for a family reunion or a family getaway, what a great place to go, relax and be together as a family.

And each villa has its own cooking facilities. So you can either prepare meals there, or you can have a chef come in and prepare the meals for you. They have an outdoor patio area that’s all under cover, with an open—three sides, with an open wall. So you’ve got that indoor/outdoor experience. But the thing I liked about it was the fact that it only holds 18 people.

So if you’ve got a family with adult children, leave the grandkids at home, grab your kids and their stuff and just go have a blast there. And you can really use it as a connection place, because you’ve basically got an entire resort to yourself.

JOHN: Yes.

HELEN: And you’ve got a common—that common area with the pool in it.

JOHN: And that’s very, very close to the Muri village as well. So they could walk up and if they needed to go to the supermarket or the grocery store, you can still pick up all those modern conveniences without having to go back to the capitol, even though it’s only 20 minutes away. But you do have the little village right there. That’s just a beautiful section over there in and around Muri beach and that area you just mentioned.

HELEN: Yes. But I always remember that one because I thought they’re a great place for reunions. If you’re into—and for the business side of things, if you’re into doing VIP Mastermind retreats, that would be a great place to do it. Hire out the whole resort.

And for the 18—for the six units, I think I went and priced it out, but the prices are probably changed, but it was around $5,000 a night to do the whole resort. And I thought, “If you’re doing a VIP Mastermind retreat, that’s not a bad price.” Or if you want to do a family getaway, that is an awesome price. When you think 18 adults for $5,000 a night. I mean you really can’t beat that price.

JOHN: You’re in paradise.

HELEN: And you’re in paradise, yeah. And you’re not paying high tourist prices in this area too. All the accommodation prices were very, very reasonable. And even some of the—the luxury ones that we went to see, their prices just astounded me. I thought “Man, if we were in Hawaii, we’d be paying two to three times this for this place.”

So it was—in one of the examples that I—I actually had to do a presentation when I got back the following week. And people were talking finding great travel deals and that sort of thing. That was what my presentation was on. And I said “Who likes over-water bungalows? Well, on the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort, they have over-water bungalows there that go for half the price of the average price in Tahiti or the Society Islands.”

Because I went back and I priced out what would it be for a week there, took that same week, found the average price for Tahiti and the Society Islands for their over-water bungalows, and it was like the average price was $9,000 for Tahiti or Society Islands. And in the Cook Islands, there it was $4,200 for that same week. I was like “Wow, for those that want that experience but don’t want to pay that pricing, that’s a great tradeoff, and you’re getting the similar experience because you’re in that similar setting as far as the tropics go.”

JOHN: Now it’s a little gem that I think a lot more people are going to start to discover. I’ve just done a lot of travel on adventure shows recently, Helen, and just the interest that people are now coming and saying “Where is this place? How do I get there?”

It’s growing and I think it’s going to be—when people go there, they speak very highly of it, and I think it’s only going to continue to grow. You and I understand why. They’ve got a few more tourism dollars. We probably see more of it on the commercial outlets. But unfortunately, being so small, they don’t have the dollars that your Tahiti or your Hawaii have, but I think your experience is just as good, if not better. So…

HELEN: Oh yeah. And it’s not that far away. It’s 10-hour flight from LA, and it’s 4 ½-5 hours from New Zealand.

JOHN: Correct.

HELEN: So it is not that far away when people think about it. You leave at 11:59 PM on a Sunday, and you arrive at 7:00 AM on a Monday morning.

JOHN: And it’s perfect if you can fly back out on that Saturday night, you get back in relatively early into LA, and then you can get any connection flight back across the continental USA. So you’re back home in time for work on Monday if you have to go back the next day, so to speak. So you’re only looking at those five days off per se.

HELEN: Absolutely. I mean, ah, I can’t thank you enough for the invitation to go down there last year. It was—it was just—it was just phenomenal.

JOHN: Well Helen, we love taking you down. Reason being is what you do. You do exceptionally well. You know the South Pacific as well as anyone in the industry. So I mean we wanted to get you down there and show you this little part of—this little gem. Because I know you know Australia and New Zealand like the back of your hand, but now you know the Cook Islands as well.

HELEN: And if I ever get anything out of Australia, I’ve got a good mate I can call.

JOHN: Exactly. We seem to work well. We’re good. We fall into place. We fall into place.

HELEN: Oh yes. I mean John knows just about as much New Zealand as I do, and he knows a little bit more about Australia than I do. But he’s a good resource for me. And I absolutely love working with John and his team, because they help me put together phenomenal packages for my clients. And I can’t thank you and your team enough for what you do and supporting us as travel agents to be able to help us give our clients an unforgettable experience when they’re looking at New Zealand, Australia and the South Pacific.

Because you really do—I mean for me it’s super. I just turn around and go “Here’s the itinerary.” They come back with a price and go “There you go.” Other times, if it’s something I’m not familiar with, I’ll go “Hey look. I’ve got a client that wants to do this, this and this.” And they’re like “Absolutely.” And their knowledge amongst your team members is the best I can find in the industry as far as if I am not sure of something, I can go to them and say “Hey, last time we did this we were able to do this. Can we do—I thought I heard about this.”

They’re like “No, but you can do this.” Or they’ve got that knowledge base there. So to have you and your team there to help me help people have an unforgettable experience is just phenomenal. So I can’t thank you guys enough for being able to do that for us.

JOHN: I know. We love working with you, Helen. Whenever we can help you and your clients, we love to. So make sure yeah, if you’re listening to this, make sure you give Helen a call. She loves to help out the South Pacific. So…

HELEN: Oh, thank you. And if you do want to find out more about the Cook Islands, go to, and you can sign up for a free 1-hour consultation on your vacation to the Cook Islands, and help you find out more about that. So John, I would like to say thank you so much for taking time out of your day to come on the show with us.

I truly appreciate the amount of time that you’ve spent with us today, and passing on your knowledge and your experience for the Cook Islands. And I know we’re going to have you back, because we’ve got other places to talk about too, like Australia and New Zealand.

JOHN: Perfect. We’ll set that up moving forward. So we’ll be able to share as much knowledge as on the Cook Islands today, on some other destinations. Maybe even a little more, I’d say. So we’re good to go.

HELEN: Oh yeah. I’m sure we can come up with some good stories about Australia and New Zealand too.

JOHN: Definitely, definitely.

HELEN: Well thank you again, John. And for everybody listening, until next time. Hei konei ra.

About Helen Brahms

World globetrotter, Helen Brahms, is your Luxury Travel Concierge. She specializes in creating unique once-in-a-lifetime travel memories and charity fundraising trips. Whether your travel dreams include exotic locations or time with your family, you can have it all. Helen loves to help people cross destinations off their travel bucket list before they take a dirt nap! Helen is the host of the Have2Travel Radio Show ( and is the author of the book "Congratulations, You're Going On a Cruise! Now What?" and the co-author of the book "Passionistas Talk!: The Best of the Passion Point Interviews (Vol. 1)"
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